Alex Darken is a poet, father of two, lecturer at the Poly, and he’s in crisis. His marriage has fallen apart and he’s retreated to a cottage in Norfolk to lick his wounds and gain perspective. There he falls under the influence of an alcoholic, elderly poet (Edward) and a beautiful, troubled psychic, Laura. Together they “pursue the alchemical and personal secrets of the spirited Louisa Agnew”, a woman who is the centre of a parallel story from 140 years before. In this second narrative, Louisa follows her father’s obsession by devoting herself to the Hermetic arts, which in turn forces her to “confront her own dark side and her feelings for a tormented minister”.
I really enjoyed this novel. The modern-day story of Alex, Edward and Laura on the one hand and the intricate Victorian-era tale of Louisa, her father and the tormented reverend Edwin on the other. What made it particularly interesting from a psychology point of view was the way Lindsay Clarke draws on Carl Jung’s work on psychology and alchemy, which made me want to explore this area again.
I’ve always admired Jung’s emphasis on integration and his instruction that in order to be psychologically whole, we need to come to terms with our shadows or darker sides. In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung makes an analogy between the great task of the alchemists and the process of reintegration and individuation of the psyche in the modern psychotherapy patient.
On one level, alchemy is about turning base metals into noble ones (silver and gold) while at a psychological level it describes a more symbolic process of transformation. When we engage in psychotherapy, Jung says, we are engaged in a process of transforming ourselves. The difficult experiences of our daily lives are changed through the act of working on them and more significantly, like the alchemists, we ourselves are transformed.
If you’re interested in reading more about Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, a good place to start would be the Wikipedia entry. In the novel there is also a lovely description of the process of firing up a kiln, which draws on the language of alchemy to describe the transformation through fire of moulded clay into a beautifully glazed work of art.
But to return to the novel, at one level it is a coming-of-age story and both Alex Darken and Louisa Agnew need to grow up and take responsibility for the different aspects of who they are. But while Alex emerges from the novel seemingly refreshed and ready to take up the challenges once again, Louisa is much more restricted by her circumstances. There’s an interesting aside here in that Clarke based his story on the real-life story of Mary-Ann Atwood. Like Louisa Agnew, Atwood published an alchemical book which she then withdrew at the request of her father. But unlike Louisa, Mary-Ann Atwood was able to marry and live a more fulfilled life.
A couple of gripes here. Firstly, some of the descriptions of alchemy and the hermetic arts were too wordy and detailed for my liking. Secondly, it struck me how much the novel both draws on psychology while also ignoring it. There’s the issue of psychotherapy for a start – none of the characters even contemplate it in the face of pretty serious ‘life events’. And while therapy would (hopefully) offer a calm, containing environment to sort through any number of disturbing thoughts and feelings, that doesn’t of course make for a thrilling novel. Much more exciting to have wild unconscious forces at work than to talk them through on the couch.
There is one passage though, which I thought beautifully captured for me what therapy can be about. Edwin Frere, the troubled Victorian priest, seeks out Louisa Agnew’s advice late at night:
And someone was there who listened. She listened without judgement, with concern and a tender regard for every difficulty in which he struggled. There were moments when he dared to look up into the searching blue of her eyes and he might have believed it possible to say anything — anything and everything of his shame and rage, his fears and his fathomless dread. Never had he felt himself in the presence of so receptive a spirit. She was more truly priest than he was himself. She would silence nothing, forbid nothing. She would exhort nothing but such measure of honesty as he felt able to share.
I’d love to hear your opinions if you’ve read this novel. I was thinking that it qualifies as a psychological thriller (although not in the conventional sense) and it may well turn out to be one of the more interesting novels I read this year.